If former President Nelson Mandela’s death earlier this month cast a shadow over the fate of his African National Congress (ANC) party, which has dominated South African politics since the end of apartheid in 1994, the largest labor union in the country formally withdrawing support on Friday has served to clarify the extent of the ANC’s troubles.
Now lacking both its ancestral leader and a key cog in what must be a fraying electoral apparatus, the party is left resting on its laurels — an extensive legacy of noble anti-apartheid activism, to be sure, but also widespread allegations of corruption and patronage that have alienated traditionally loyal constituencies. That the 300,000-strong National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa has gripes come as no surprise given the ANC-led government’s harsh crackdown on striking mineworkers in Markikana last year, but the union’s decision to form its own socialist political party is a remarkable one, as there will now be several formidable parties clashing at the polls next spring, as opposed to the ANC and just one or two middling alternatives. In that respect, the union may actually be boosting President Jacob Zuma’s chances of survival, as the greatest threat to his re-election would be the left (including organized labor) unifying under the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) banner of former ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema. A splintering of skeptical organizations and activist groups into rival camps, on the other hand, is survivable.
One politician who we can expect to be absolutely delighted with this development is Mamphela Ramphele, the former Gold Fields executive whose employees were involved in the Marikana incident last year. Her centrist campaign aimed at urban, middle-class voters can only benefit from the left being at war with itself, and if organized labor is focusing its attention on rival progressive parties, it will have that much less time (and money) to be critical of her business associations and penchant for pow-wowing with global elites.